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What is Biblical Archaeology

Updated on January 10, 2019
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Dr. David Thiessen is an educator, writer, pastor, and speaker. He has authored several books on a variety of topics including Archaeology

A Definition of the Term

There is the old joke that runs around in archaeological circles which describes the difficulty of defining the category Biblical Archaeology. The joke goes if you put 4 archaeologists in a room, you get 5 opinions.

That joke aptly describes the situation when it comes to applying a proper definition to this archaeological sub-category. The people at Bad Archaeology and Dr. Eric Cline, in his Raiders of the Faux Ark article, define biblical archeology as doing archaeology with a trowel in one hand and a bible in another.

While they mean this definition in a demeaning way, in reality it is a compliment. The Bible remains the greatest source for ancient cities, peoples and historical events and many, like the Hittites, would not be found without their inclusion in biblical pages.

The Bible is a great road map to the archaeological and historical past. Ever since Nelson Glueck stated that there has been no archaeological discovery disproving the Bible, that record remains intact from when he said those words to today.

The Biblical Archaeology Society has stated that biblical archaeology helps deepen our understanding of the Bible and history. Then the CBN website states that the sub-field’s purpose is to uncover evidence that sheds light on the people, places and events described in the Bible.

Other organizations and individual archaeologists have their own definitions. Feel free to pick the one you are most comfortable with. One definition is probably as good as another.

What about naming it Syro-Palestine Archaeology

There are some archaeologist who would feel more comfortable with this label replacing the term biblical archaeology. In their mind, the archaeological work would open up further and include the histories of the different people who occupied the Levant before the Israelites conquered it.

Dr. Willliam Dever is still an active support for this change but his regional boundaries may not be broad enough to fit the totality of information this name change would cover. According to the adherents and supporters for this alteration, this new field would investigate events, etc. After the biblical period as well as histories that the Bible does not address.

I have no problem with this new field of study as long as we can keep biblical archaeology a separate field. I would not want biblical information distorted by ancient secular works or changed because the ancient people did not record the same events.

As in the case of Jericho, the people heard about what God had done for the people of Israel and they became afraid. It is highly unlikely that these scared people took the time to objectively record what they heard about Israel’s departure from Egypt.

Secular ancient records are incomplete and are written under the same influences that modern historians and archaeologists have. They say that history is in the eye of the historian and that fact holds true for ancient historical writers as it does for more modern ones.

Needless to say, if biblical archaeology is replaced by another label, great care would need to be taken to preserve the biblical information and not let it be vulnerable to unscrupulous archaeologists and other researchers.

My View of Biblical Archaeology

I have not really defined what constitutes the meaning of the term. I am comfortable with several of the definitions given out by the many different archaeological organizations and individual archaeologists. Of course, I may make a few tweaks to those definitions like I did above.

My view of biblical archaeology rests more on the content and practice of the field and not what is meant by those two words. What follows are my thoughts on biblical archaeology and what it should be.

Biblical archaeology

  1. should be about bringing the truth- Christians and bible believers have too much at stake to present false ideas, mis-identifications, and so on. There should be no lying about a dig site, an ancient people, their culture and their daily life, etc. God does not lie nor should the biblical archaeologist
  2. should be honest- if the biblical archaeologist does not know what they have or cannot identify a given artifact building or its purpose, then they should be honest and simply say they do not know. The idea that unidentified buildings and artifacts are turned into religious centers or religious icons or fertility statues should not happen. Honesty is always the best policy and providing misinformation is wrong, misleading and an insult to the intelligence of people
  3. Should be thorough- if a discovery is made it should be investigated properly. Plus, it should not leave information buried for future archaeologists. Leaving information buried only reveals part of the past and presents a very incomplete picture that is of no use to anyone
  4. Should understand its limitations- biblical archaeologists should not be creating wild theories or inventing events or conversations that may not have taken place. Also, they should not let enthusiasm interfere with their work and make declarations that prove embarrassing to the Christian faith, God or the Bible. In the case of the ark searchers, they should recognize the fact that we do not know what gopher wood is and would not be able t identify it even if we found it. Declarations need to be inline with God’s biblical instructions and not a means to raise more money from the faithful
  5. Should include faith- God says that it is faith that pleases him. That tells us 2 things. First, we are not going to find all the physical evidence we need to prove a biblical event took place or that a biblical figure existed. It is impossible to do that because of the natural course of life. Second, the fact that we get physical evidence for those events or people only tells us that we will get enough evidence to support our faith. God is not going to destroy what pleases him. This does not men we do not do archaeology, we do need to keep secular archaeologists honest and we need to get the truth out to the public. It just means that faith is always going to be part of the faith, the Bible, God and biblical archaeology. Yet that same faith does not misidentify discoveries either.

Some Final Words

Biblical archaeology needs to remain so that we can see that God does as he says he does. HE does not lie. Nelson Glueck declared that archaeology has not made one discovery to disprove the Bible. In the 50 years, plus or minus a few, that declaration still holds true.

What disagrees with the Bible is the biblical archaeologists’, other archaeologists’ and researchers’, et al, opinions, assumptions, leaps to conclusions, speculation and conjectures.

Biblical archaeologists simply need to be careful when they are working in the field of biblical archaeology. Both their work and the field should be following God’s instructions and bringing God the glory

© 2019 David Thiessen


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